Sunday, June 2, 2013

Joe Hill's N0S4A2

I adore Joe Hill. I love his comic book series Locke and Key. I think I love it even more than Sandman, and that's saying a lot. I think his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, is brilliant, and I don't particularly like reading short stories.

I saw Joe (we're tight like that, so I can call him just Joe) speak at Beachwood Library last year. My mom used to work with the librarian who had set up the talk, and this librarian told us Joe was really nervous, because he hadn't spoken in front of such a big crowd before.

That's fucking endearing right there.

This all sounds like I'm gearing up for one big BUT about his newest novel--he's so great, but this book was shit--but I'm really not. I loved it.

A lot of reviewers are making much of the fact that this book contains a lot of overt references to his dad's books. And there are a bunch--I counted references to It (I mean, obviously--it's my favorite book of all time, so I wasn't about to miss those), The Stand, The Dark Tower series, homages to Christine...I don't have to specify who Joe Hill's dad is, right? It feels like something everyone should know now. Saying it would be like specifying that Daniel Radcliffe played Harry Potter in some films when he was a kid. We all know.

Anyway, yeah, the references are there, and I got a kick out of them. It's very cool in that the universe of this book seems a hell of a lot vaster because it includes these other books I've read.

But those could have been removed and we'd still have a hell of a story. Vic McQueen discovers when she's a kid that she can use her bike to create a bridge that will lead her to lost things. It's a handy gift, but comes with a price--bad headaches and ultimately some loose marbles--the more she uses it. It leads her to Charlie Manx, who's got a gift of his own. He's got a vintage Rolls Royce instead of a bike, and it takes him to Christmasland--along with the children he "rescues" from lives of certain growing up. The cost for him is his soul, and those of his charges. Vic just manages to escape him and get him put in prison, but of course that only lasts until halfway through his autopsy. Then he's back in the game, and coming after Vic again. And now she's got a kid of her own.

I don't want to spoil too much, and plot summaries are the pits, so let's talk about the characters. Because this is where Joe really shines. (And, not to keep beating him with the comparison stick, it's also where his old man really shines. And doesn't get enough credit for it.) Vic McQueen has the deck stacked against her. She's got the wife-beating dad and the difficult mother. She's got an ever-increasing amount of bats loose in her brain, thanks to her "gift." Then she goes through some seriously traumatising shit at the hands of Charlie Manx. It'd be enough to screw anyone up, and Joe doesn't shy away from it. This girl spends some real time being seriously. screwed. up. It feels like a true depiction, which means she's not the only one affected by her past. It comes back to bite her son in the ass, and his father Lou. Also her parents. Her neighbors. And a lot of telephones.

What we wind up with is a character who does some seriously questionable things. She screws up. She does some nutty, shitty things. But we get it. She's not excused--she herself admits to her many flaws and mistakes--but as readers, we get to empathize with her. We root for her. She feels real. She's no stereotypical mom or victim or biker chick. Girl's got depth, yo. John Green once said that the hero's journey is not from weakness to strength, but from strength to weakness. This is quite literally true for Vic McQueen. And it never feels like a given that she'll succeed. Joe Hill knows how to make with the ambiguous endings I love so much.

There's a great supporting cast, too. Bruce Wayne Carmody is the kid, and in his own way is as fucked up by his parents as his mom was by hers. But he's got a great self-possession, and it's heartbreaking and horrifying to watch his struggle to hold onto his soul one Manx has his teeth in it. Lou Carmody, Wayne's father, is a hero in his own right. He's also huge, and a nerd. And awesome. And then there's Maggie Leigh, a tribute to librarians everywhere. And some FBI agents. And Bing Partridge, Manx's mortal henchman. And more. What's great about them all is that none fit neatly into a "type." A wife-beater can be sympathetic. A fat, nerdy guy can be heroic. A murderer can have good intentions. And I never felt like any of the good guys were safe. It didn't feel like a given that Vic would succeed, or that Wayne could keep his soul instead of becoming an innocent killer like the other kids Manx took. The stakes always felt high, and real. It kept me turning the pages. I bet you will, too.

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